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How to Pick a Protein Bar

Not all protein bars are created equal. Let's examine the difference between energy bars and protein bars and talk about what to look for when choosing a protein bar.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
Episode #538
protein bars

Karen asks: “Is there such a thing as healthy protein bars, or are they just glorified candy bars?” 

When it comes to protein bars, there are scores of choices and new brands appearing weekly. Following are some tips about what to look for and what to avoid when choosing a protein bar.

But first, let’s draw a distinction between a protein bar and an energy bar. These terms are often used interchangeably to refer to any bar-shaped item that's not an actual candy bar. And, to be honest, these terms don’t have any strict definitions. But I think of energy bars as being relatively high in carbohydrates. 

Protein bars versus energy bars

Energy bars were originally designed to provide a portable source of calories, or energy, to fuel physical exertion or exercise. Carbohydrates are more quickly absorbed than fats and proteins, which take longer to digest. In fact, the simpler the carbohydrate, the faster it will be available to the muscles. And another word for simple carbohydrate is sugar. So, in order to provide quick energy during extended exercise, an energy bar is going to be high in sugar.

See also: What to Eat Before, During, and After a Workout

The rest of the time, however, we are we’re usually trying to limit the simple sugars and emphasize complex carbohydrates, instead. So an energy bar isn’t a great choice for a meal replacement.

Protein bars, on the other hand, are lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein. Although this makes them less useful as a source of quick energy during exercise, it makes them a better choice to replace a meal of snack. 

If you need a meal or snack, real food would always be preferable to a highly processed bar.

Protein helps to maintain and build strong muscles and bones. After a hard workout, a combination of protein and carbohydrates can help you recover more quickly. Because it is more slowly digested and absorbed, protein also helps to regulate blood sugar and appetite. 

If you need a meal or snack, real food would always be preferable to a highly processed bar. But if real food simply isn’t available, a protein bar would be a better choice than an energy bar.

What to look for in a protein bar

You have a lot of options to choose from. Here are some of the things to consider when checking out those nutrition facts labels and ingredients lists.

1. How much protein is in it?

The amount of protein in a typical protein bar ranges from 10 to 30 grams. If you’re using the bar as a snack, 10-15 grams of protein would be fine. But if this bar is intended to replace an entire meal, look for one that contains at least 20 grams of protein. If you’re really trying to maximize the muscle-building benefits, aim for at least 25 grams of protein.

See alsoHow Much Protein Should You Eat?

2. What kind of protein is in it?

Typical protein sources for bars include whey, egg white, soy, pea, hemp, and other vegetarian sources. In terms of protein quality and muscle-building benefit, whey and egg white are your best choices. If you prefer to avoid animal sources, soy would be your next best option. And if you don’t consume soy, then any of the other vegetarian proteins would be fine. 

See alsoIs Protein Combining Necessary After All?

3. What’s it sweetened with? 

Even though protein bars are formulated to take the place of a meal, they don’t make protein bars in flavors like salmon and broccoli, or steak and potatoes, or red beans and rice. Instead, we get meal replacement bars that taste like chocolate brownie sundae, peanut butter cups, or cherry cheesecake. So the question is: what's it sweetened with? You’ll find bars sweetened with honey, coconut sugar, agave, brown rice syrup, dates, or any number of other ingredients. Don’t get too caught up in the health halo surrounding these natural sweeteners. Flip the bar over and see how many grams of sugar it contains. You’d want to count that toward your added sugar allowance, which is (in case you forgot) about 25 grams per day. 

See alsoHow to Reduce Your Added Sugar Intake

If the bar is catering to low carb or keto diet enthusiasts, it’s probably sweetened with artificial sweeteners like sucrolose or aspartame, more natural low-calorie sweeteners like stevia or monkfruit, sugar alcohols like sorbitol or erythritol, or a combination of these. None of these are perfect, for reasons I’ve explored in past episodes.The artificial sweeteners may have a negative impact on gut bacteria. Stevia and monkfruit taste a little funny. And sugar alcohols can cause mild digestive distress. Of these, I’d lean toward monkfruit and sugar alcohols. But I still recommend consuming these sugar-free foods with the same degree of moderation you would apply to foods that contain sugar. 

I recommend consuming these sugar-free foods with the same degree of moderation you would apply to foods that contain sugar.

See also: What's a moderate intake of non-caloric sweeteners?

4. How many calories does it contain? 

Calories range from around 150 to almost 400 per bar. Regardless of whether those calories are from protein, carbohydrate, sugar, or fat, they need to fit into your food budget for the day.  Calorie needs can range from 1500 to 3000 a day, depending on your size, body composition, and activity level. So, when choosing a bar, consider your total calorie needs and what portion of your calories this bar will replace. As a general rule, a full-sized meal should provide 25-35 percent of your calories for the day. A snack should be closer to 10 percent of your daily calories. (And remember, snacks are totally optional).

5. What else is in there?

Once you’ve selected a bar that has the amount and type of protein you want, the right number of calories, and your preferred sweetener, take a look at that ingredient list to see what else is in there. Don’t be too dazzled by functional ingredients like adaptogens, fancy fatty acids, herbal extracts, or added vitamins and minerals. Most of these are either superfluous, unnecessary, or included in quantities that are too small to have any benefit. On the other hand, a long list of chemicals and additives is a sign of a highly processed food. Ingredient lists should read more like a recipe and less like a chemistry lab assignment.

Ingredient lists should read more like a recipe and less like a chemistry lab assignment.

How protein bars fit into a healthy diet

When it comes to protein bars, you have a lot of choices. And this guide can help steer you toward bars that meet your needs. But protein bars are never going to be an ideal form of nutrition.  Choose your protein bars well, but try to save them for those times when real food is not an option.

Stuck on a plane for 6 hours with nothing but stale pretzels? Forced to spend your entire lunch break at the DMV to renew your driver’s license? Lunch was early and dinner will be delayed? Those might be times when a protein bar would come in super handy.

But you don’t have to eat a protein bar the moment you finish working out in order to maximize the benefit of your workout. For that matter, you don’t have to carry bars around with you so that you can eat one the moment you notice that you might be starting to get hungry. Your metabolism will not shut down if you go an hour without food in your stomach. In both cases, if real food will be available in the not too distant future, it’s perfectly fine to wait.

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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